Are you already in a lunch rut? Has your dinner routine devolved into dull disaster?
It’s always the same, every year. I set out with plans to pack my kids wholesome, maybe even attractive repasts the night before. Two weeks in, they’re regulars in the school lunch line. (This actually isn’t a bad thing: School lunch in Massachusetts is free again this year, which is a huge win for the Commonwealth. When more kids get school lunch, it helps reduce the stigma for kids who depend on it.)
Meanwhile, my best-laid plans to prep dinner during the day somehow turn into my husband and I sending terse texts from across the house: “Dinner ideas?” “No…” until one of us (him) excavates something uninspired from the freezer.
Yes, when I ask parents about their major stressors, mealtime is huge — dinner, too. Most of us work all day. Many of us are commuting back into an office, meaning we can’t slink off a Zoom a little early to run to the grocery store, where prices are now insanely high anyway.
And then there’s the creativity conundrum: I keep getting pitches for Jenny Mollen’s hot new book, “Dictator Lunches,” featuring “inspired meals that will compel even the toughest of children.” These inspired meals include radishes picked from the garden, glossy peppers with faces, and sun-butter “kittens” with edible ears. Jenny Mollen is an actress married to Jason Biggs with many thousands of Instagram followers.
For mere mortals dealing with limp Trader Joe’s bread and the scraped remnants of a jelly jar, here are some more realistic answers. I talked to a few talented chefs who are also parents — people who actually get it, work long hours, and understand the value of pleasing tough customers. Here are their hacks.
Ana Sortun, Oleana, Sarma, Sofra: “[My daughter and I] make guacamole … and add so many things to it — diced peppers, pumpkin seeds, lime, diced radish, and layer it with cheese and lettuce and scoop it into crunchy taco shells.
I [also] make a big batch of carrot burgers or red lentil burgers and freeze them. You can bake them or pan-fry them and top them with yogurt.
Her dad’s quick snack is hummus on toast with honey.”
Robert Harris, Season to Taste: “My hack is follow the five Ps: prior planning prevents poor performance, and what this means is taking care of those meals on Sunday. A lovely roasted chicken (roasted on Sunday night) with quickly seared spinach and then a grain in a box can be put together in 20 minutes on a Tuesday night. Essentially, do your shopping on Sunday, have your ingredients in-house, and then you’ll have dinner and lunches taken care of at least till Wednesday.
Cooking dinner is like going to the gym. If the ingredients or the gym is close by, there is a greater chance you will go or cook dinner. We are not going to mention the Peloton sitting unused in my basement.” (Sorry to out you, Robert.)
Danielle Ayer, Talulla: “My go-to is one-pot meals. Weekdays are always tough, because Talulla [her daughter!] has something at 5 p.m. every day, which means we’re not home until 6:30, and at that point I don’t want to cook. So I like to start dinner slow-cooking that afternoon — our faves are turkey chili and meatballs. Just prep everything when you have time and then let it cook when you don’t have the time. That way, all we have to do at 6:30 is spoon on some toppings or throw some pasta in water and then serve. Always so enjoyable after soccer practice.
My second tip is cooking grains at breakfast-time. I always cook quinoa, rice, or farro in the morning because they take time. Then I put it in the fridge for later use. At dinner time, all I have to do is sear some protein, and my grains are already finished. Less mess to clean up at the end of a long day.
Third: frozen veggies. They make great ice packs, too. I find that so much time goes into prepping vegetables. So much easier to just have a bag of frozen broccoli or corn kicking around. Put it in a pan, add some butter, salt, and lemon — maybe some parmesan and crispy garlic if you’re feeling fancy — and call it a day.”
Gordon Hamersley, Hamersley’s Bistro: “So, kid food: I’m a big fan of buying good ingredients, doing a little weekend work, and then dividing into portions and freezing or canning.
Tomato soup is my go to. … It’s the most kid-friendly and versatile stuff imaginable. It’s a great “mother” staple that can give you so many potential meals. I make big batches with fresh tomatoes now in September but make it with canned tomatoes all winter, too. Then I just freeze it in small(ish) plastic containers. Many people … can their soup in 1-quart jars and keep them on a basement shelf to keep the freezer space open. I’ve only met one kid in 72 years who didn’t like tomatoes.
Of course, tomato soup can be eaten as just soup fortified with crispy roasted chickpeas, or warm croutons, or tortilla chips, any variety of cheese and precooked chicken and herbs. I like adding orzo, olives, and herbs to tomato soup to make a thick porridge type dinner. (OK, kids, sorry. Maybe the olives on the side!)
Cook down the soup a bit, and you have a reasonable tomato sauce for baked pastas or lasagna. Stored in smaller portions, they freeze well and take 15 to 20 minutes in the oven from freezer to table.”
Yahya Noor, Tawakal Halal Café: “An air fryer and indoor griddle have saved me many times. Wings and burgers in the air fryer take no time to cook. Chicken, beef, and ground beef using the indoor griddle takes less than 20 minutes to make. I also use the griddle to heat up tacos and chapati. Freeze cooked rice and the meat, then microwave.”
Jody Adams, Porto, Saloniki, Trade: “In my early days of being an overwhelmed and exhausted mother and chef, I would put a cheese and mayonnaise sandwich under plastic, on the bottom shelf of the fridge at night with a glass of milk, so [my son] Oliver could get his own breakfast.
My hack for my kids and later my mother, as we took care of her, was Oliver’s Chicken Stew. It can be super simple or fancied up with tarragon, butter, parm, pasta, and crostini. I still make it because it’s so damn easy.”
Here it is:
Oliver’s Chicken Stew
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 whole free-range chicken, about 3 pounds
8 cups homemade chicken stock or 8 cups high-quality low-sodium canned chicken broth
5 medium carrots, peeled and sliced ¾-inch thick on an extreme diagonal
5 celery stalks, peeled and sliced ¾-inch thick on an extreme diagonal
4 medium leeks, white part only, trimmed of roots and tough outer leaves, sliced ¾-inch thick on an extreme diagonal, and swirled vigorously in a bowl of cold water to remove any grit
Bouquet garni (1 bay leaf tied with a few stalks parsley)
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
4 garlic cloves, smashed
1/2 cup stellini (tiny star pasta)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
4 thick slices crusty Italian bread
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1. Wash the chicken and set it in a large, deep soup kettle, breast side down. Add the stock and 4 teaspoons salt (if using canned stock, first taste, then add salt as needed). Bring to a boil. Skim the surface thoroughly. Lower the heat.
2. Add the carrots, celery, leeks, bouquet garni, thyme, and garlic. Adjust the heat so the water barely bubbles. Poach the chicken breast-side down for 15 minutes, then flip it over and continue poaching until the chicken is cooked through, about 25 minutes. Lift the chicken out of the pot, transfer to a large plate and allow to cool.
3. Taste the vegetables. If they’re tender, strain the stock into a large saucepan, setting the vegetables aside. If they’re not yet tender, transfer them along with the stock to the saucepan. Discard the bouquet garni. Set the stock over medium-high heat and let it simmer steadily until the liquid reduces by half, about 20 minutes.
4. While the stock is reducing, put a medium saucepan of salted water on to boil for the pasta, then begin removing the meat from the chicken. As soon as the chicken is cool enough to handle remove the skin and pull the meat off the bones. Discard the skin and bones and shred the meat into large pieces. Set the meat aside, covered, in a warm place.
5. When the saucepan of water comes to rapid boil add the pasta. Cook until tender but still has some bite, about 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.
6. When the chicken broth has finished reducing whisk in the butter, then add the lemon juice and fresh tarragon. Taste for seasoning and add more lemon, salt and pepper if necessary. Add the chicken, vegetables, chopped parsley and pasta to the broth. (If I know there are leftovers, I sometimes set aside what won’t be consumed before I add pasta to the remainder. That way pasta doesn’t absorb the liquid in the leftovers.) Keep warm over low heat.
7. Brush the bread with 1/4 cup olive oil and either toast or grill until golden. Sprinkle each slice of toast with 2 tablespoons of Parmesan. Set 1 piece of cheese toast on each of 4 deep dinner plates.
8. Ladle the broth, chicken, vegetables and pasta over the chicken and serve.